In an article this week for WIRED – The energy sector must prepare for more extreme climates – I detailed some of the main causes of the recent Texas power outages.
One aspect that I did not address in that article was the political accusation that happened as the incident unfolded.
Tucker Carlson blamed wind turbines for power failures. Texas Governor Gregg Abbott took part in Sean Hannity’s program, declaring “’This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and solar power were shut down and, together, they were more than 10 percent of our electricity grid, which pushed Texas into a situation where power was lacking across the state. “‘
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic MP and supporter of the New Green Deal, retaliated Twitter with “Texas infrastructure failures are literally what happens when you * don’t * seek a New Green Agreement.”
How can two sides look at a situation like this and come to opposite conclusions about the cause? I’ll tell you how – by telling only a partial story.
I will present a complete image below. This first graph shows how it can be concluded that the freezing of wind turbines was the problem, while natural gas was used to meet a large wave of demand. Remember that the demand for natural gas below is only from electric utilities, but the demand for domestic heating was increasing simultaneously.
Therefore, we can point to this graph as evidence that between February 8 and 10, wind energy fell dramatically, while natural gas energy came to the rescue. If you just look at this graph, natural gas is the hero of the story.
Therefore, natural gas was carrying a large load during the early stages of the storm, and that is the source of that particular narrative. Natural gas undoubtedly saved lives at the start of the storm. Of course, this is what natural gas must do – supply energy when needed.
But after several days of exceptionally cold weather across Texas, more problems began.
On February 15, one of the reactors at the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station shut down. At the same time, the freeze began to impact natural gas production sites. According to the Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in Texas dropped almost 45% during freezing.
Many utilities began to lose natural gas supplies at a time when energy demand was reaching record levels. The result was that the energy that natural gas was supposed to provide was simply not there when needed, and therefore power outages occurred.
Therefore, neither Tucker Carlson nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is correct. Yes, some wind turbines have froze in Texas. Some solar panels were covered with snow. But these sources of energy are known to be intermittent and therefore were not the source of major power cuts.
The big problem was the energy loss of conventional base-load plants. It is the energy that must increase when necessary.
Natural gas was called upon to fill a huge gap between supply and demand, both for energy and for heating. Although electricity from natural gas increased during the crisis, at the same time, the natural gas infrastructure was freezing and preventing it from fully meeting demand.
So, there is a lot of blame for everyone, but the biggest factor was with the natural gas infrastructure, as detailed in my WIRED article. If natural gas production had not fallen when demand was greater, blackouts could have been prevented.
On the other hand, if Texas were being largely powered by wind and solar energy – even with backup batteries – the situation could have been much worse. The batteries would have been discharged at the start of the storm, and then firm, fast-response energy would be needed to fill a huge supply gap.
The lesson for me is that networks need a lot of backup power available on demand. This will become increasingly important as more intermittent sources of energy are added to the grid. Unless we can ensure that battery backups can survive an outage that can last for days – and can substantially increase the demand for home heating at the same time – we need firm power sources that are ready to scale and fill in the gaps.
Texas thought it had ample sources of backup power, but this historic weather event caused the system to fail. Still, the best options available for firm reserve energy are natural gas and nuclear power. In the future, I suspect that more money will be spent properly in preparing for winter the natural gas infrastructure and water lines in these utilities. This is one of the best short-term remedies that could prevent the next crisis.